Analysis of AY 217, On the side, the sternum becoming flexible

Body and Mature BehaviorA fellow practitioner suggested to me reading Chapter 7 of Body and Mature Behavior alongside the lesson On the side, the sternum becoming flexible, while we were discussing it on Feldyforum (Feldenkrais practitioners’ mailing list). It’s a delightful lens for this lesson. Many ways over.

First he starts that chapter talking about creating stability between the chest and pelvis as a precondition of any action — “the stability of the whole body relative to the ground should be increased in the plane in which work is to be done.”

So I’m happy just to take that sentence and do the whole lesson again, filling in commentary for myself around that.

When this point was raised, we had been analyzing this lesson in terms of where we go into extension, flexion, side-bending, rotation. The reference movement is extension in rotation. Then we sidebend and flex in rotation. Then we extend further. Then we flex in a less extreme rotation. Then we come back to the extension and rotation of the reference movement. All well and good.

But this comment all by itself transforms all that flexion and extension and sidebending: we see it along the axis of an imaginary standing body working in a plane, and ask about the creation of stability in that plane. When I lift my head in all these configurations, I am still lifting my head in a plane along this axis (while the sagittal plane of the spine itself is twisted and folded–can one describe it that way?). This takes us from the “manipulation” (internal organization of the movement–see Vary the lesson: orientation, manipulation, timing) to the person acting in gravity.

But that’s not the best of it. The rest of the chapter…too much detail for me to assimilate, and too many images of animals being tortured on this nice Saturday morning. But a broad outline I see goes like this (I lose not just details but main themes in summarizing, but what I get is enough to learn something, so here it is)…

He surveys many layers of reflexes and other mechanisms relating to keeping the head upright (for the human, along the tight central axis–certainly the theme of this lesson)…from spinal reflex, to brain stem activity (which itself only gives chronic contraction of extensors), to inner ear (balance), to proprioceptive feedback from neck muscles twisted and bent, to external sensory information of pressure against the surface, to orientation around the teleceptors. To summarize that list (hierarchy?):

  1. spinal reflex (e.g. withdrawal of limb from heat)
  2. brainstem reflexes (antigravity–standing upright–chronic extensor contraction, without moderation from higher brain activity)
  3. vestibular/inner ear (the information that feeds the reflexes (or the preference?) to take head to vertical, be able to survey the environment with the eyes, etc)
  4. tonic neck reflexes (among other things, if not moderated, turning head to a given side results in extension of that limb; also, information from the twisted neck passes the news along to bring the rest of the body to support the head and undo its twist, to bring the pelvis under, therefore again freeing the head/neck for these purposes of perceiving and relating to the environment…)
  5. reflexes relating to exteroceptive sensations–the rabbit that doesn’t right itself though vestibular reflexes (its inner ear having been tortured in some way) will right itself just because of how it feels the floor.
  6. then the conscious control–a monkey without all that can right its head if it is focussed on something with its eyes…and a human by looking, by decision…

After reading this, I think of the position of this lesson less as a “constraint” and more as a freedom–the freedom of humans to be in any position (not a preferred posture to which we return by reflex like the bunny in the youtube below) and lift the head to the horizon as organized by the teleceptors
and our conscious intention.

(This is an important point in itself. “Amongst ourselves” as practitioners we talk of positions in the lessons as “constraints”. You hear that language a lot on the Open ATM Project. I tend not to use it while teaching–it gives the wrong feeling. Yes, the position invites and even compels a certain organization of the movement, and finding and exploiting such positions is part of the genius of the method. But call it a “constraint” and the students will start acting constrained, rather than freed. You can go through this lesson and think about how the “constraint” makes you do certain particular things along the spine. Or you can think that we are exploiting the enormous freedom of the human skeleton to do all this.)

But back to motor control and reflexes. With this list in mind, now the lesson is just one gigantic complicated mess of layers of neurological control. As Moshe says, something has to determine, from that mass of input, what actual action will take place. This is integration.

The rabbit reflexes he describes on p. 61 are here on youtube…

The rabbit doesn’t quite cooperate with extending the forelimbs (maybe they aren’t isolating the movement in the neck enough?). And they don’t quite seem to have success getting it to lie on the side with pressure from both sides.

Now, having read this chapter, particularly this sentence (p. 62)…

“When the head has been righted and the body held in a lateral position, the neck is twisted. [I.e. the position of 217.] The proprioceptive nerve organs in the neck muscles, joints and tendons are stimulated and the thorax rights itself so as to untwist the head. The twist is now displaced to the lumbar joints, and the pelvis is righted as well by the proprioceptive stimulation arising from the lumbar region.”

“We see here the neck and lumbar-righting reflexes acting so that the body stands properly and follows the movements of the head.”

…I go back to the lesson and find it a symphony of actions addressing the lumbar spine and pelvis (as he suggests in 1a it will–“you will see that it does something very good to the whole body, to the pelvis and to the hips, and not just to the chest”)!

And I find the position of 3 and 4 (where you place the top leg above and in front of lower leg on floor) not so much something that undoes the twist and backs off the challenge, making it easier, but something that inhibits passing the extension down the spine to the lumbar joints and pelvis, actually something that makes it more challenging. It primes me to make that connection when I go back to having the top leg resting on the bottom. (This is a common technique we use: lifting your head is easier if the pelvis helps. Rather than telling you that directly, we take the pelvis help away and then give it back: voila, you discover it yourself.)

So the lesson plays not “just” on the biomechanical, but on the neurological connections…

The “popping” of the head to turn further when we turn the sternum by our fingers (5b and 7) shows us the purpose of this neurological connection that passes the twist down the spine to undo the neck: the freedom of the head and neck is regained.

Somehow now this all feels like a preparation to use the arm to turn further and lift the head in 8c and 9a….until the twist is passed down the spine and the lumbar spine (hips) are involved, the arm/shoulders aren’t free to help the head go further into this twist/extension.

And then in 10, we push the sternum down and flatten the ribcage…we moderate the attitudinal interference with righting the head, the anxiety pattern of contracted abdominal muscles.

The whole conversation had started with analyzing the lesson as the acts of a play. So to sum the lesson up that way, here it is:

So now I’m experiencing the acts and scenes of 217 as all about addressing the abdominals/lumbar spine (the flexibility of the sternum is not only relative to the spine, as important as that is, but relative to the pelvis) of the person who wants to lift their head to the vertical around their axis, to see and be free.

So Act I Scene 1 gives the challenge (1 & 2). Can you look back over your shoulder and bring your head into the vertical, while lying on your side? The hidden key (the neurological relation to the pelvis, as the proprioceptive input from the neck’s twist makes you want to bring your pelvis underneath/undo the twist from below) is in the background.

Act II Scene 1 (3 & 4): Completely remove the hidden key from the scene (the pelvis fixed with the top leg on the floor in front: the reflex is more or less blocked now). We haven’t given up the attempt at the challenge, but is now more in the wilderness than ever. Because being in the wilderness creates the opportunity for the realization of what is truly essential.

Scene 2 (5 & 6/7): The opposite organization: to lift the head to look to the extended arm, is a big abdominal organization and differentiation. Big differentiation because the obliques that would pull the trunk in one direction must completely stop (to let the sternum slide away) and the other obliques must completely work (to lift the head to look towards the outstretched hand). Here addressing the “attitudinal” layer: the chronic misuse of the abdominals. Having discovered the essential, we make use of it for something completely different, and clarify and differentiate. This is lateral flexion, not in the big sidebending sense (after all, the instruction is to take the ear to the shoulder, not to take the whole shoulder girdle to the side, and sidebend the ribcage, as we will see in 218), but in the sense of lengthening the muscles on one side of the abdomen while using the others–but in flexion in a twist, not in side-bending.

Scene 3 (8 & 9): Returning to the challenge, and now helping with the hand–the greater turning of the shoulders and the sternum sliding up related directly to letting the abdomen protrude.

Act III: Scene 1 (10): Cleaning up the attitudinal layer and coming closer to the heart, the centre, the axis: going with the pattern by sliding the sternum down. This addresses more the rectus abdominus, it gets more central: we do both sides in one “step,” just turning the legs from one side to the other. A lateral flex/twist that is closer to the midline than in Act II.

By “attitudinal layer,” I mean the body pattern of contracting the flexors, related to anxiety. See Anxiety as fear of falling.

Scene 2 (10 c & 11) And return to the challenge. Now you really are able to “strain the back” to lift the head with the abdomen coming forward. The hidden key is clear and available.

Another option for learning: perhaps at the beginning, one has no flexibility in the ribs and completely over-recruits the lumbar spine to lift the head, via this reflex. The lesson will also work for that person, creating many new possibilities in the ribcage to distribute the movement all along the spine.